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Escaped Prisoner?

Many of us have stories about our ancestors that have been passed down through the years. As family historians, our job is to document those stories and determine the truth of what really happened. John Welsch’s Civil War pension file found at the National Archives is a great example of how these files can be used to do that.

John Welsch was a member of the 72nd Ohio Infantry. The story that his descendants have been told is that he was captured during the war, sent to the notorious Andersonville Prison, but managed to escape.

Surviving war records show that only 351 men successfully escaped from Andersonville. This number represents less than 1% of all of the men held there. Many of those 351 men had descendants, so there are people today who can claim that their ancestor escaped from Andersonville. But was John Welsch one of those soldiers?

John Welsch’s Civil War pension file at the National Archives sheds some light on this. When he applied for his pension, part of his application included a statement he wrote out in January 1888.

In it, he writes “...our suffering was so intense and unbearable that in Feb 1865 I with some others took the Oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, and thus got out and got to Macon (Georgia), stayed there two weeks and made our escape and came to our lines and reached our lines April 3 1865.”

The problem with this for John Welsch is that if he had took an oath to the Confederacy, he wouldn’t have been eligible to receive a pension from the US government. The very next page in his pension file was another statement, dated two months later. This one tells a different version of the same story.

This one, given in March 1888, was a summary of an interview with John Welsch, in which he states that he “never did take an oath of allegiance to support the Confederacy. That the facts are as follows. He with several other members of his company and regiment were taken prisoners at Guntown Miss sometime in June 1864. That he was confined in Andersonville and Milan also in Savanah Ga prisons. That he was a prisoner of war for about nine months and in order to get released he told the rebels in authority that if they would let him go he would join their army, but he never took an oath to do so and the only object he had in doing so was to make good his escape back into the Union lines which he succeeded in doing rejoining his command on the 3rd day of April 1865. He never did render any service to the Confederacy and never intended to do so.”

So what really happened? Was he starving, sick, and suffering so bad that he took the oath to the Confederacy in desperation, in order to be released? Was he crafty enough to outsmart the authorities at the prison camp into releasing him so he could rejoin the Union army? Or was it both? Did he take the oath to the Confederacy or not? It’s hard to say for sure. He has statements in his own words in his pension file giving two versions of the same event. One thing remained consistent though. Whether he took the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy or not, he never claimed to have actually fought for the Confederate army. He remained consistent in saying that he made his way back to the Union lines after leaving the prison.

Another clue as to what happened was found in his compiled service records. If a soldier was captured during the war, he will probably have papers in that file documenting it. In his paperwork, two things stand out. The word “paroled” was crossed out, and replaced with the word “escaped.” This same document also states that he rejoined the Union lines on April 3, 1865, just as he said. His official records document that he escaped and rejoined the Union Army.

A final clue that sheds light on what happened is the status of the pension applications themselves. His pension application was approved when he filed in 1888, something that someone who had joined the Confederacy shouldn’t have been able to do. However, when his widow filed for benefits in 1909, her application was denied. The reason for her denial was that the official records showed that he joined the Confederacy in October 1864, while he was confined in the Confederate prison camps, making him ineligible to receive a federal pension.